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4 January 2023

Rishi Sunak’s New Year speech showed how out of his depth he is

Has the Prime Minister given up, or did he not have any ambition to begin with?

By Zoë Grünewald

Through a smile that looked more like gritted teeth, Rishi Sunak delivered his first public address of the year today.

Despite his best efforts to channel the charisma and ideas of prime ministers past – David Cameron on the importance of family, Tony Blair’s vision for education, David (played by Hugh Grant) from Love Actually’s fixation with love – Sunak was devoid of charm or fervour. His five-point plan was couched in vague metaphors and revolved around fixing problems of the Conservatives’ own making. His faux-buoyancy and optimism couldn’t hide the obvious truth: his speech was without substance, and the Prime Minister is without vision.

Sunak made five pledges to tackle the year’s most pressing issues: to grow the economy, halve inflation, bring down national debt, reduce NHS waiting lists and introduce legislation to address the rise in small boats carrying migrants across the Channel. There was little substantial detail and not a single element of the plan was new – what was the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement for if not for growing the economy and curbing inflation? This was the bare minimum of what any functioning government would be looking to achieve in the present circumstances.

Sunak spoke of wanting to restore “optimism, hope and pride in Britain” by building better futures for families. Yet without any solid plan to address the broken childcare sector, extortionate housing market or chronically low wages – all of which prevent people from having and raising children – Sunak’s attempt at compassionate conservatism felt inauthentic. He spoke of getting a handle on law and order, ending violence against women and tackling antisocial behaviour, but failed to provide any further detail. Of course, everyone wants less crime. The question is how.

Where Sunak did offer specificity – his focus on innovation, skills and a controversial plan for maths to be compulsory for pupils up to the age of 18 – holes were immediately apparent. The crumbling of the education sector has left 90 per cent of schools on track to run out of money completely this year, head teachers say. This attempt at reform thrusts an expensive new requirement on a sector whose immediate priority is not teaching maths but affording basic equipment and ensuring buildings stay upright.

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Meanwhile, Sunak’s recognition of pressures on the NHS was undermined by his insistence that culpability for its failure lies solely with the pandemic. His proposed solutions are barely sticking plasters: increasing bed capacity by a paltry 7,000, a third of the minimum number of beds needed to meet future demand according to the Health Foundation. Sunak’s promise to cut NHS waiting lists was yet another repeated commitment presented as novel, and one which he refused to quantify.

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The Prime Minister’s speech may have demonstrated what many have suspected: he is resigned to defeat. He has abandoned progress, resorting to promises that he will most likely never have to follow through. Even that is a kind interpretation. Did Sunak have any ambition to begin with? At a moment when the nation faces economic disaster, deep societal divisions and crumbling infrastructure Sunak, with his City of London ideology and managerial attitude, has been exposed as ineffective and unable to achieve consequential reform.

Sunak ended his speech by telling the public to judge him on his actions: “I will only promise what I can deliver and I will deliver what I promise.” Since he promised very little, we should expect little delivery.

[See also: Can Rishi Sunak survive the wrath of the right?]

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